The management of hedgerows by partially cutting through the stems, laying them over and weaving them together to produce a thick living barrier, which re-grows from the base.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK, mainly in livestock areas|
|Origin in the UK||Over 2,000 years|
Most people will be familiar with the theory that hedge laying began thousands of years ago with the first farmers; from archaeological evidence we know that these ancient people were very skilled at using hazel and other materials to make hurdles and wattle fencing, there is of course no evidence remaining to illustrate their skills at hedge laying. The first positive record of hedge laying is found in the book by Thomas Tusser (1557-1580) where he makes a passing reference to hedge laying or ‘plashing’. The word comes from the French to cut, as in ‘pleaching’, but plashing is certainly not hedge laying as we know it, and simply indicates awareness that hedges needed to be managed. John Fitzherbert in 1573 gives a much more detailed description of cutting and laying.
Not until 1652 is there a real reference to hedge laying when Gervase Markham in his book records that there are different styles of ‘plashing’ in different parts of the country; this was simply a reflection of different people interpreting the practice in their own way to suit local circumstances. Thomas Hale’s book of husbandry in 1757 makes the first mention of using stakes in the hedge, where he urges the husbandman to survey the hedge before he starts work, picking out the straight stems to be used for the hedge and then cutting others to use as stakes where there is insufficient material to strengthen the hedge.
The Agricultural Revolution, which gathered momentum from the mid 18th century, saw many developments in agricultural practice and one of the ploughman’s responsibilities was to look after the hedges and ensure that they were stock proof, not so much to keep livestock in, but to prevent them encroaching on valuable food crops.
There is no indication of ‘style’ developing until the 19th century, when in the age of large estates, vying with each other to show off their wealth owners began to demand the best of their workmen; estates developed their own styles. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the styles we know were invented, growing not from regular agricultural work but from competitions. Judging at these competitions was a very subjective affair done by respected craftsman from the area. Their preferences for particular ways of laying were well known and so competitors adopted techniques to suit the judges, thus various styles developed which although related to agricultural practice in the area perhaps owed more to the judges at particular ploughing societies rather than to scientific study.
The advent of the First World War had a devastating effect on agriculture in general. Shortage of labour and demand for food meant that many of the niceties of managing the land were neglected. After the war a continuing shortage of labour and an economic downturn exacerbated the situation. The war had introduced an economical alternative to hedgerow management – barbed wire – invented in the USA in the 1880s and it soon became an economical alternative to good hedges. The Second World War lead to a further decline in hedgerow management and hedge laying on farms was now far less significant although the skills were being maintained by the many competitions which continued to flourish.
After the Second World War the demand for food created a major change in agricultural techniques, hedgerows were no longer considered of any value. Hedge laying was a costly and unnecessary process which could be replaced simply and cheaply by running barbed wire around a field, attaching it to any tree or shrub that was available. Tractor mounted flails were introduced which could trim a hedgerow to manageable proportions very easily.
Not until the late 1960s was there a general awareness of the damage that was being done to the countryside, and the alarm bells were sounding all over the country, with an increasing demand for tighter control of agriculture and the environment. It took another ten years before legislation was introduced to protect hedgerows and attention was once again drawn to hedgerow management techniques.
There are different styles of hedgelaying across parts of the UK. Each style has been developed over many years to cope with the climate of the area, different farming practices and the type of trees and shrubs that grow in the hedge.
Hedges consist of different species of trees and bushes including hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, oak, sycamore, ash and field maple and others. So they need to be treated by different techniques which gives rise to the many varied styles across the country. There are more than thirty styles recorded in the UK plus others in France, Germany and Holland.
- Cornish hedgelaying
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- National Hedgelaying Society – provides simple courses, but hopes to run a lot more in the future.
- Devon Rural Skills Trust
- Devon Hedge Group
- Blackdown Hills Hedging Association
Craftspeople currently known
The National Hedgelaying Society has a list of practitioners around the UK on its website.
At the moment there is a shortage of hedgelayers nationwide.
- National Hedgelaying Society, A Brief History of Hedgelaying
- National Hedgelaying Society, Regional Styles